Friday, June 14, 2024

What’s the answer to Britain’s hidden gambling problem? – BBC News

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  • By Katie Razzall
  • Culture and media editor

“You get very good at lying,” David tells me.

“Getting loans for home improvements that weren’t for home improvements. Credit cards. Any way I could get money to gamble.”

A transport worker from the north of England, David doesn’t want to reveal his real name.

His gambling addiction has cost him his marriage, and many thousands of pounds. “It’s just a double life,” he says, “I’ve lost enough for a house.

“I was using online casinos, roulette machines, slot machines online. It was always on my phone. I was betting on football live, on horseracing, anything. It could be any time of day.”

Now in his 30s, David is getting help and has managed to make it just past 100 days without a bet.

With the government about to announce its planned reforms to gambling laws in Great Britain (it is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland), David wants affordability checks on punters to make sure they have the money to lose.

“I only got asked if I could afford it after I’d spent thousands of pounds,” he says. “I just went to another company and opened another account.”

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, The government is expected to tighten regulation on the sector when it publishes its white paper on gambling in the coming weeks

Intense lobbying behind the scenes has gone on in recent months, to shape what will be the first significant piece of legislation on gambling in nearly 20 years and since the invention of smartphones.

This white paper has already been pushed back at least four times, with delays caused by changes in prime ministers and the revolving door of the secretary of state for culture (there have been eight in five years).

Last July, the review was in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street for approval, the final stage before announcement. Instead, it was shelved as Johnson’s premiership faltered.

White Paper: Key battle grounds

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Betting logos are likely to disappear from the front of football shirts under a voluntary Premier League deal (Southampton FC players pictured)
  • Statutory rather than voluntary levy for gambling firms – campaigners are hopeful this will be implemented after earlier doubts
  • Affordability checks for gamblers – a consultation is expected on the level at which these would kick in
  • Tighter controls around advertising and marketing – the Premier League is likely to agree a voluntary deal restricting front-of-shirt adverts
  • Maximum stakes for online slots – £2 limit expected for each bet

When Tony Blair’s Labour government introduced the Gambling Act in 2005, it allowed gambling firms to advertise sports betting, poker and online casinos on TV and radio for the first time.

That legislation predated the arrival of the smartphone a year or two later, a game changer in the world of online betting.

“With online gambling, there are no barriers in place,” says consultant psychologist Matt Gaskell, the clinical lead for the NHS Northern Gambling Service.

“Typically, our service users are gambling from the moment they wake up in the morning in their bed. They take their phone into the bathroom with them, they take it in the car.

“They’re gambling at work and they’re gambling when they return home and they can keep it very secret even from their loved ones.”

The NHS has clinics across England treating people with gambling problems, including three clinics in the north of England. The service is expanding further. By the end of the year, there will be 15 NHS centres in England dedicated to gambling.

Gaskell says an industry which has aggressively targeted punters with habit-forming products offering continuous gambling has caused a “significant public health crisis”.

He wants the government to introduce a statutory levy on the gambling companies and to develop a public health message.

Image caption, The NHS has clinics across England treating people with gambling problems

At the moment, the industry funds research, education and treatment into gambling harm on a voluntary basis.

In recent weeks, behind the scenes, charities and parliamentarians who want changes have been piling on the pressure.

A letter to the chancellor earlier this month from the chair of Peers for Gambling Reform, Lord Foster, and signed by Mr Gaskell amongst others, says the “overwhelming consensus is that the current voluntary funding arrangement lacks consistency, transparency and independence from industry influence”.

They want a firewall; at the moment, Mr Gaskell told me, the public health messaging around gambling “is paid for by the gambling industry”.

“So it’s a rather meaningless, self-serving messaging… It doesn’t help the public make good, informed decisions.”

Gambling in numbers

  • Excluding the National Lottery, the gambling industry made almost £10bn before tax in 2021/22
  • £6.4bn of that amount came from remote (mostly online) betting, bingo and casino games
  • £3.5bn was made from the Land Based Sector, also known as non-remote betting at arcades, bingo halls, casinos and betting shops
  • According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the gambling industry paid £3.2bn in tax in the 2021/22 financial year
  • It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 460,000 problem gamblers in Great Britain

You only need to watch a football match to see how normalised gambling has become – or, as the industry puts it and as many see it, how much fun can be had.

In-play betting has for many fans added extra excitement to those 90 minutes watching your team on the pitch. You can gamble on who will score the next goal, who will get the next penalty, how many minutes there will be of extra time.

Eight Premier League clubs now display gambling firm names on the front of their shirts, after sponsorship deals. There is a similar number in the Championship.

The Betting and Gaming Council told the BBC it supports the Gambling Review to “raise standards and promote safer gambling, but any changes introduced by the government must not drive gamblers towards the growing unsafe, unregulated black market online”.

The BGC says the “rate of problem gambling remains low by international standards at 0.3% of the UK’s adult population – down from 0.4% the year previous”.

It points out that the “overwhelming majority” of the 22.5 million people in the UK who enjoy a bet each month, do so “safely and responsibly”.

Image caption, James Grimes, head of education at Gambling With Lives, pictured with students at the UA92 in Manchester

Campaigners for more regulation say they want to protect problem gamblers and for legislation that keeps pace with technology.

“At the moment, we are probably the country with the most liberal gambling laws in the world,” the former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told me.

He’s part of the All Party Parliamentary Group on gambling-related harm. They’ve spent years arguing for more protections especially for children and other vulnerable groups, including forcing gambling companies to pay a statutory levy and a ban on their names on football shirts to “stop thousands of people wandering around as advertising”.

“We’re not out to stamp out gambling,” he says. “We want to have it better regulated so it traps fewer people in spirals of debt.”

James Grimes lost £100,000 to his gambling addiction. The 32-year-old, who lives in Stockport, took out 20 payday loans and borrowed from anyone he could.

Despite being on the minimum wage at the time, Mr Grimes says the gambling industry pushed him to keep betting.

“They gave me a VIP box at a Premier league football match. They gave me tickets to the horse race and there would be a £100 free bet in my account every week.”

James, who will be five years free of gambling in April, is now the head of education for the charity Gambling With Lives.

“I still get emails from gambling companies saying ‘Come back in, here’s 100 free spins’. You wouldn’t give an alcoholic 100 free shots of vodka if they stopped drinking five years ago. So why do we allow this to happen? It’s a form of grooming.”

Like David, he was pulled into gambling when he was much younger. He says the impact of potentially addictive gambling products on young brains needs more research.

James wants the white paper to propose stake limits on online gambling, to bring it into line with physical betting.

He also wants restrictions on advertising and sponsorship, “especially in football, which is adored by millions of young people”.

The role of the Gambling Commission, which licenses and regulates the industry, is also included in the government review.

A spokesman for the commission said it “creates an opportunity to build on the progress we have made to protect players and the public – such as strengthened age and identity verification, strict new guidance for so-called VIP schemes and banning gambling with credit cards.”

Image caption, Ryan Myers took his own life before his father found out he had been addicted to gambling

John Myers’ son Ryan was a football fan. It was only after Ryan took his own life that John and his wife discovered their son was addicted to gambling.

A few months before his suicide, Ryan had even written an email to one of the online gambling firms saying he was “finally admitting” he had a serious gambling problem. John shared it with the BBC.

Ryan wrote: “I’ve woken up this morning to find out I’ve pretty much emptied my bank account and don’t even remember doing it.

“I know I don’t deserve it and can understand if you don’t do it but I was wondering if you could find it in your heart to maybe somehow refund some of what I deposited last night and then ban me.”

Image caption, John Myers, Ryan’s father (pictured with Katie Razzall), hopes the white paper will put in greater protections for gamblers

John Myers says he doesn’t want gambling banned.

“We want the predatory industry to take some blame… we want the government to change the rules around it so they can’t be as predatory as they are now.”

He hopes the white paper will put in greater protections for future Ryans.

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